Finding the right wetsuit comes down to one thing
Selecting the right wetsuit can be daunting. There are many brands to choose from and with prices ranging up to $1,200 or more, buying one can be costly.
But there are a lot of things you should consider beyond price. Is one wetsuit faster than another? Is one warmer than another? Are the more expensive suits the better choice? Is one type of neoprene better than another?
These are the questions most often asked but, regardless of price, material, or claims to speed, it really comes down to one consideration: fit.
Full suit: These have full-length sleeves and legs down to the ankles. Shoulder and sleeves are thinner neoprene for less restrictive movement.
Sleeveless long: No sleeves, arms free, shoulders exposed, legs covered to the ankles.
Sleeveless short: No sleeves, arms free, shoulders exposed, legs cut just above the knees.
Two-piece: Top separate from bottoms. Top can be either long, short, or no sleeve. Bottoms with legs extending to knees or ankles.
Swim-Run: These new wetsuits are a response to the new swim-run-swim-run events starting to pop up around the country. These are short-sleeve with legs cut above the knees. These are becoming more popular in triathlon because of their low buoyancy, freedom of movement, zipper in the front, and ability to be slipped on and off quickly.
Swimskin: Non-neoprene material but thicker than a swimsuit. Used for water temperatures above 75 degrees in Florida, Hawaii, and Midwest triathlons.
Fit and Comfort
Fit and comfort are the most important considerations when it comes to buying a wetsuit. You may have a $1,200 wetsuit, but if you don’t have the right fit, you won't go any faster and may be slower because you’ll be distracted or chafed from an ill-fitting suit. There’s no amount of anti-chafe lube that will guard against an ill-fitting suit.
Most wetsuit purchases are done through online sales, and companies can be accommodating on returns and exchanges even after one use, but check on those policies before you purchase. You also might be able to try on a wetsuit at a store or at a vendor booth at a competition before buying.
Most or all the wetsuit manufacturers' fitting charts are very close in both height and weight and have large size ranges for women and men. A good fit is when the suit fits snug in the armpits (with arms above head and at sides), lower back, groin, and knees. If these areas are loose or baggy, the suit will chafe and collect water, making you feel waterlogged.
Swimming in a wetsuit for the first time or in a new wetsuit will feel foreign and a bit restrictive. Try it out in the pool first, at Masters practice or lap swimming. Swim for five to 10 minutes and it should start to feel less restrictive as it loosens up and stretches out a bit. If after 15 minutes you still feel very restricted, the suit is rubbing uncomfortably around your neck and chest, or your breathing is somewhat labored, it’s best to go with a larger size or select a different wetsuit type
The amount of buoyancy a wetsuit provides is almost as important as fit and comfort. Thick suits with more coverage provide more buoyancy. It might feel like swimming with an extra-large pull buoy. But that artificial buoyancy can be more foe than friend.
An overly buoyant suit will make you feel like a cork and make it difficult to rotate and engage your hips and core. This will cause you to significantly change your stroke to accommodate. Less experienced swimmers welcome the feeling of having their hips high and it being easier to swim, but they tend turn off their legs and relax their core and only use their arms to swim.
Although a more buoyant wetsuit will make up for errors in your stroke that create imbalances (such as dropped hips), in most cases, the less neoprene and coverage, the better. Use a wetsuit for warmth and comfort, not to fix your technique.
In USA Triathlon events, you don’t have to wear a wetsuit unless the water temperature drops below 60 degrees, and you can’t wear a wetsuit in water above 75 degrees because of the possibility of overheating, though swimskin-type suits for warm water events are allowed.
In U.S. Masters Swimming open water events, you can’t wear a wetsuit in Category I Swimwear events. You can wear a wetsuit in Category II Swimwear events as long as the water is not higher than 78 degrees.
Triathletes who come from a competitive swimming background often choose to swim without a wetsuit and take a little more time to acclimate to cooler water temperatures. No wetsuit means no adjustment for added buoyancy and a much faster swim-to-bike transition.
In short, pick a suit that fits well, is comfortable, and keeps you warm while you’re swimming in cold open water conditions with the stroke you've honed at the pool for hundreds of thousands of yards. Make it part of your triathlon and open water swim training. Swim with your wetsuit in the pool and at your open water practices so that it will feel familiar and comfortable in your next open water event or triathlon.
- Open Water